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  Book review

Coming of Age in Arabia: a memoir of Aden before the terror

by Tom Henighan

Penumbra Press, Canada, 2004. Pp.233. Illus. With 44 b/w photographs. Map. Chronology. Bibliog. ISBN 1-894131-64-9.

Tom Henighan served as American vice-consul in Aden from 1957 to 1959. Aged only twenty-two, without, as he mentions, any training in Arabic culture or language, this was his first posting overseas. ‘I was young and my interests [were] not very political’. Indeed his work as consular dogsbody offered limited scope for contact outside the narrow expatriate circles in which he moved. Not very promising material, it might seem, for a memoir. But Henighan (who is the author of three novels) tells us in his Preface that ‘in writing this account I sometimes resort to the techniques of fiction… I have, however, invented nothing… I have sought to recover the drama, the comedy, and the unexpected epiphanies which I sometimes experienced in Aden’.

The book is, accordingly, idiosyncratic in style and structure. It claims to focus on the author’s ‘coming of age as a young American in a colonial society that was moving rapidly from stability to chaos’. But much of the text is devoted to chronicling the author’s sexual adventures and the bouts of dissipation in which he and his contemporaries indulged to beguile the longueurs of Aden life. The author admits that he ‘had little access to information that would have enabled me to comprehend, never mind anticipate [Aden’s future descent into chaos]…’ However, if he had spent less time ‘partying’, he might have significantly improved his access and thus his credibility as a witness to ‘the historical changes occurring right under my nose’ but to which, at the time, he was effectively blind. Henighan’s lack of access does not deter him from passing judgement on these changes, but his political and other thoughts are largely retrospective – the outcome of reading undertaken long after he left Aden in 1959.

The subtitle of the book, by including the emotive keyword ‘terror’, is clearly intended to widen the book’s appeal. And it provides the author with a pretext for padding his memoir with an account of developments lying far outside the span of his personal experience. To this end he includes not merely the violence which precipitated Britain’s withdrawal from Aden but also all major ‘terrorist’ incidents that have occurred in Yemen during the past decade. His commentaries on such events are woven into, and sit uncomfortably with, his often flippant, sometimes painfully introspective, memoir of his days (and nights) in Aden.

Henighan can be an entertaining raconteur. He writes with the practised fluency of the novelist that he has become. His pen-portraits of British officials whom he met during brief trips to Mukalla, Soqotra and Beihan are well-observed, if occasionally caustic (in conscious emulation, perhaps, of Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant evocation of Aden during his visit there in 1930). Henighan clearly relished the experience of sailing with Tony Besse (son of Waugh’s Monsieur Leblanc) in the Aden Regatta. As consular officer, he had the opportunity to visit Taiz, where he met the eccentric American adventurer, Bruce de Bourbon Condé.

Like most young men in their first assignment, Henighan wanted to shine but found himself at odds with his boss, US Consul William Crawford. Henighan never forgave the latter for describing him in a confidential report (rather aptly it would seem) as ‘introverted, irresponsible, impatient and immature’.

Resorting to the legerdemain of fiction, as the author admits doing, has its risks. For example, on p.78 Henighan incorrectly describes (Sir) Horace Phillips as ‘the Colony’s senior intelligence officer… a spy from the home country beneath the thin cover of his title [of Chief Secretary]’. Phillips, whose hospitality Henighan claims to have enjoyed on several occasions, was not Chief Secretary (a post occupied in Henighan’s day by K. W. Simmonds) but Protectorate Secretary. Moreover, he was a career dipomat who, having recently served in Jedda, had been seconded to the Colonial Service in 1958 for two years to assist the Governor of Aden, Sir William Luce, in managing the affairs of the Protectorate at a crucial juncture in the development of the South Arabian Federation. Contrary to what Henighan gratuitously alleges, Phillips did not conceal his Jewish background.

Equally ill-informed is Henighan’s contention (p.117) that Sunni-Zaidi/Shi’a religious differences among Yemeni migrant workers in Aden posed problems for the British administration. Less forgivable is his animadversion on p. 175: ‘Despite the national rhetoric of good intentions and the political brilliance of many administrators, the British presence in South Arabia, as in Ireland, India and elsewhere, was essentially an evil force’. Such raw armchair prejudice undermines Henighan’s claim to be taken seriously. Time and again he chastises colonial Aden – the playground of his early twenties – with the moralising clichés of hindsight. Meanwhile, he is not alone in attributing ‘The Barren Rocks of Aden’ to Kipling instead of to the Scottish Pipe-Major who composed the bagpipe tune of that title.

Before leaving Aden, Henighan seduces, by moonlight at the Gold Mohur Club, the pretty, well-connected, eighteen year old English girl whom he later marries. There his personal story ends, but in his ‘Afterword’ he is highly critical of American policy in the Arab World that he sees repeating many of the mistakes made by the British during their moment in the Middle East. The 44 black and white photographs illustrating scenes and personalities mentioned in the text are well reproduced. The map, chronology and bibliography are useful, but the failure to include an index when so many personalities are mentioned is culpable.

Julian Paxton